A Safer Planet?
Advice to Police Officers

Dark Justice -- Chapter 22

The Wages of Sin ...

Associate Justice Harmon Fitzgerald wondered why lawyers worried so about oral argument. By the time a case reached the Supreme Court it had been massaged half to death. There were briefs and arguments in the trial court. Perhaps an intermediate stop in the Appellate Court. And then more briefs for the Supreme Court. Oral argument, in Harmon’s view, was the equivalent of a predigested meal. There might be some nutritional value in it, but there was no point in pretending that it had much taste. Oral argument, truth be told, was most often boring. Today looked to be no exception.

Fitzgerald looked at the clock on the wall of his chambers. Ten minutes to go until court opened. He rose from behind his desk and headed toward the door. He had just enough time to head to the robing room and to don his black robe.

"Mr. Justice, it is your wife on line one," his secretary buzzed through on the intercom.

Fitzgerald paused for just a moment. Eleanor knew that arguments began at ten. Was this an emergency, or had she again lost her way as she stumbled through the weight of grief that had become their daily burden?

Hand on the door, he debated whether to answer.

"Mr. Justice?"

Fitzgerald took one step toward the phone and something like rebellion welled within him. Today he did not feel like shouldering her grief.

"I am heading down to argument, Beth. Tell her I’ll call afterward."

Another small betrayal; another brick in the wall growing between them. As he walked, Fitzgerald toyed with the idea of living alone. He was half way there, wasn’t he? Eleanor had gone to pieces after Lester’s disappearance. She kept her son’s room as though it were some kind of religious shrine. And now the house reeked of stale cigarettes, as did Eleanor. Fitzgerald could almost smell death on her when she walked into a room. And when that football player was charged with the murder, things only got worse. She raved for hours about the injustice of it all. Try as he might to console her, she was becoming, or had she already become, a caricature. He feared that the rest of their lives, the rest of his life, would be a howling shriek of rage.

His footfall was heavy, and he lumbered down the hallway as he headed toward the robing room.

"Good morning, Mr. Justice."

It was Gilda Fruida, the newest member of the court. Forty-six and filled with the wonder of it all. She had been appointed two years ago by Governor Picard. She was against the death penalty, in favor of abortion rights, hostile to insurance companies, and to the left of Ralph Nader on the most issues. Fitzgerald and several of the others called her "Fruit Loops."

"Morning, Athena. And how is the view from Mount Olympus today?"

Fruida had taught classics and law at the University of Wisconsin before returning to Connecticut.

Both arrived in the robing room at the same time.

Fitzgerald didn’t much like having women on the court. For one thing, it made trips to the robing room feel illicit.

The robing room was really a throwback to the 1950s, and was much like the locker rooms of Fitzgerald’s youth. Each justice had a squat locker painted a dull institutional beige. On the outside of each locker, a mirror, and a name plate above the mirror. No one ever really got naked in there. Hooks on the wall would work as well. But each justice had a locker, and each had a name plate and a mirror. They would gather randomly in the room just before argument to transform themselves from ordinary mortals to oracles. But did donning the uniform of justice really require coed facilities? Before Fruida arrived, Fitzgerald and the others would sometimes ham it up, pretending they were about to take the field in a tough game. Now everything was so, well, formal and proper. Fitzgerald fought the urge every so often to pull Fruit Loops’ bra strap back and let it snap back into place. Hell, that would loosen her up, some. Or would it?

On the docket today were three cases. Fitzgerald knew already how he’d vote on each. Attending argument was a mere formality. He might ask a question or two if the spirit moved him. He generally left the questioning to his more aggressive colleagues. The only case that had piqued his interest involved a claim of prosecutorial misconduct. Once again, a prosecutor had draped himself in sordid emotionalism, telling jurors that the victim in a murder case had cried out from the grave to identify the killer and was demanding justice. Fitzgerald found the argument lurid and offensive, but it was just argument, and it was an isolated part of the trial. What’s more, the defendant was as guilty as Eden’s snake. No way he deserved a new trial.

Passing from the robing robe into the Supreme Court chamber itself never ceased to awe Fitzgerald. He felt as though he were walking onto a stage where history was written in bold strokes. He could almost feel the hand of God at work. The architects meant it to be that way. A small forest had produced all the oak in the room. Portraits of the state’s chief justices loomed large on the walls. A plush, regal blue carpet covered the floor, expect for that portion bearing the state’s seal and motto. Qui transtulit sustinet: "He who transplanted still sustains."

But what dominated the room were two murals. One behind the bench at which the justices sat depicted the signing of the what some regarded as the first written constitution. Thomas Hooker, Roger Ludlow and John Haynes gathered together with a handful of Puritans more than 350 years ago to sign the Fundamental Orders, a brief document setting the metes and bounds between the members of the tiny colony.

The other mural portrayed an allegory of education. A child is being taught from the Book of Knowledge. Guardians representing progress and wisdom hover nearby. The light of education pushes superstition and ignorance into the dark. Both murals were the product of a single mind, a painter named Albert Herter who produced them on commission for the state in the early twentieth century.

The murals irked Fitzgerald. They symbolized a schizoid culture that could not decide whether to embrace the enlightenment and its ideals, or to cling to the fundamental truths of revealed religion.

It struck him sometimes that the construction of the courtroom reflected deeper and more chilling truths. As litigants and observers looked toward the justices seated at the oaken bench, their eyes were drawn to a vision of Puritan America and the confident comfort born of the sense that all the important truths had been revealed and need only be discerned by men and women of vision.

The justices, however, knew better. As they sat in their chairs and glanced upward, they saw an allegory of enlightenment. The light of reason a faint beacon in the surrounding darkness. Herter apparently had a deep sense of modernity’s dissonance. The spectators looked toward the justices for confident proclamations of eternal truths. The justices themselves often struggled against the darkness.

As the justices took their seats, Justice Arlen Spiker handed Fitzgerald a note. He looked nervous.

Fitzgerald read the note as the chief justice opened court.

"The Belle Grande police want to question me about the murder of your stepson. Some new witness says he thinks he saw a murder about the time LF disappeared. Says my car was in the area. We need to talk."

Fitzgerald was numb. Just how small a pond was the state? Drop one stone and the ripples cascade into eternity. First Eleanor swallowed by the shadows; now a pall reaching out to claim Spiker. All this on the top of the darkness consuming Fitzgerald. Cold dread and a simple desire to die swallowed Fitzgerald.

His chest was suddenly tight, and his shoulder ached. A heart attack? Would that he were lucky enough to be struck down quickly.

Fitzgerald glanced up toward the ceiling. He was looking at the allegory of education. A child sat, rapt and drawn to the book of knowledge. Superstition fading to black; the light of reason dawning. Such optimism.

All Fitzgerald could think of were words from another book. He could hear them now. Indeed, he could feel them being etched onto his heart by an icy finger. "The wages of sin are death," rang though his mind. "Death." He gave no thought to the rest of this verse. He felt that he was beyond grace.